Bible References: Ecclesiastes chapter 12.
The caper plant is a relatively obscure Bible plant, identified only in Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes was written by a Jewish sage who named himself, “Teacher.” In poetic and allegorical form, the Teacher elaborated how age takes its toll on a man, reducing him to feebleness. One piece of advice was “remember your Creator in the days of your youth before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12.1 NIV).
A characteristic of old age is reduced desire or appetite for sex, food, and other stimulation. In Hebrew the word for desire is ҆ abȋyôwnâh, which translates as caper berry.6 The caper berry is an appetite stimulant and aphrodisiac; yet, desire (caper) fails to have an effect on a man whose powers are exhausted or worn out.
The caper berry is the Capparis spinosa, known as the common caper. Caper bushes are evergreen and tolerate drought. A rule of thumb is that the caper plant grows wherever the olive tree grows. In Israel, the caper berry clings to cracks and crevices of rock piles and abandoned walls. It grows between rocks of the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.
The caper bush is a sprawling, spiny, evergreen shrub that typically grows three-feet tall, and spreads (horizontally) by semi-prostrate branching as much as six-to-ten feet. The caper bush develops a pair of sharp hooked spines at the base of each leaf stem. When capers and caperberries are harvested, hands are easily scratched and clothing can catch on hooked spines.
The caper plant produces several edible products. Both the caper and the caperberry are used in cooking. Capers are unopen buds of the caper bush. The commercial caper is an immature flower bud that is pickled in vinegar or preserved in granulated salt. The taste of capers has been described both as sharply piquant and peppery mustard. Caper buds are used to garnish food (pizza, fish), and are added to pizza sauce.
While capers are immature flower buds of the bush, caperberries are fruits the bush produces once buds have flowered and fertilized. Caperberries are about the size of a grape or olive and often harvested with stems attached. They are cured in vinegar just like capers. Caperberries (cornichon de câpres) are the semi-mature caper fruit and are used as a condiment. I’ve read that young caper shoots can be eaten as a vegetable; however, I don’t remember ever eating one.
The symbolism of the caperberry is desire. A desire is a wish, craving, or longing for something or someone. Synonyms are yearning, wanting, and needing.3 The Teacher made the point that with old age desires were blunted or reduced. Contemplating this passage, leads me to believe that some desires may be reduced so that we have an opportunity to concentrate on other desires. It’s possible that the intensity or urgency of sexual desires are muted. We become less adventurous (I no longer desire to paraglide). That doesn’t mean that overall desire is lost as much as desires change or are re-focused. Decades of living allows us to acquire experiences and knowledge. An Israelite proverb is “desire without knowledge is not good” (Proverbs 19.2 NIV).
God doesn’t view age as a deterrent to usefulness. Not until Abraham was seventy-five years-of-age did he leave Haran in response to God’s call. Moses was eighty-years-old when God appeared to him at Mount Horab.
Desires can cause problems for individuals. Cain’s offering of fruit was unacceptable to God. Cain became angry and his face downcast. God loved Cain, so he explained that a suitable sacrifice would be accepted. Then, God warned Cain that sin was crouching at Cain’s door and “desired” to have Cain. Cain’s fruit, grains, or vegetables weren’t what God wanted in a sacrifice. Perhaps, God wanted the best or first fruits from Cain’s harvest and the best wasn’t what Cain offered to God. Perhaps, God wanted an animal sacrifice, similar to Abel’s offering. More probably, God just wanted Cain to acknowledged that all he reaped was from God. God told the Israelites, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6.6 NIV).
Saint John counseled Christians that things of the world – the desires of the flesh and of the eyes and the pride of life – aren’t from God The world is passing away along with all desires; but, whoever does the Lord’s will abides forever.
Reflection: In this poem on old age, the Teacher described the elder as being afraid of many things. Many of us are afraid of things in the world, i.e., muggings, burglary, taxes. I’m afraid of the toxic political climate. Yet, the world is temporal and guaranteed to pass away. Further, God promised to fulfill desires of those who fear him.
Copyright: July 2, 2019; Carolyn A. Roth